Did you know that if you deliberately wear sweats to a luxury store in Milan you might get better service?
Or that if you wear a red bow tie to a black-tie event at the country club, people might think you're a higher-status member -- and a better golfer?
What's going on here? As it happens, breaking social norms in dress codes can be a very powerful way of demonstrating status and influence.
Breaking the rules implies you can make the rules
As long as people think it's intentional, breaking the rules is a powerful indicator of status and authority.
In a series of experiments and surveys that looked at dress code and style norms, a Journal of Consumer Research study found that deliberate deviations from convention had a powerful effect on others. These deviations included the aforementioned examples, as well as others such as using a unique background for a presentation at a prestigious competition, or wearing red sneakers when presenting research to a group of executives.
In all of these cases, doing something different was the way to people's hearts and minds.
However, the deviation had to be seen as deliberate to have such an effect. The sweats-wearing shopper had to be perceived as someone who was so high status she didn't care about dressing up to go shopping -- meaning she could not be seen as breaking the rules simply because she didn't know them.
The same held true for the other situations: the golfer dressed in accordance with country club norms except for thumbing his nose at convention with the bow tie, or the business school professor who was suitably professional except for the red sneakers.
How to impress and influence people
You can use nonconformity to your advantage: By selectively deviating from the norm in specific areas, you can craft an appearance as someone with status, power, and prestige.
Perceptions like those will help you in all manner of interactions, from a business negotiation to selling your great new idea. However, excelling in this art requires a fine balance between adherence and nonconformity, not to mention a heavy dose of self-confidence.
First off, don't flaunt the rules entirely. If you show up to a business presentation with disorganized slides, a disheveled appearance, and a poorly thought-out pitch, people won't think your red shoes scream "innovative" -- they'll think you're a slob.
Instead, hit all the important points straight on: clear ideas, a practiced presentation, and clean clothes. Then, flaunt the rules in ways that can highlight a penchant for innovation -- those red sneakers, perhaps, or an arty PowerPoint background, or that flamboyant purple briefcase you've had your eye on.
In this situation -- or in the event that you go all out and wear your gym clothes to Louis Vuitton -- self-confidence will underscore the high status of your nonconformity. In other words, don't rock red sneakers if you're going to be self-conscious about it. Wear them with pride.
What if you're a traditionalist? Well, maybe it's time to go so by the book that it's nonconforming in itself. If you can't see yourself in anything but a suit and tie, consider revisiting the three-piece with some glossy loafers.
It might sound vain to you now, but think of the benefits -- those red shoes or your tweeds could be at the heart of a seriously powerful business strategy.